TW: racism, heterosexism
“For a long time, right-wingers — and some pundits — have peddled the notion that the ‘real America’, all that really counted, was the land of non-urban white people, to which both parties must abase themselves. Meanwhile, the actual electorate was getting racially and ethnically diverse, and increasingly tolerant too. The 2008 Obama coalition wasn’t a fluke; it was the country we are becoming.“
– Paul Krugman, in an article written in the wake of the election Tuesday
I’m not sure why, but people often seem very eager to declare major events as the ‘end of history’ or something similar. Whether it was academics talking about the containment and disintegration of the Soviet Bloc creating a post-conflict world or political strategists arguing that Republican-brand conservatism is the end-all-be-all of US politics, we’re all quite quick to declare temporary changes to be permanent, irreversible trends. That being said, I think Krugman is in the right here. 2008 was the first sight of something new on the political landscape, and 2012 is a clear sign that it’s not going away with any speed. What I desperately hope, however, is that it keeps growing and changing and improving itself, because 2012 might not look it, but it’s been a much sturdier and impacting victory for less powerful Americans.
This goes against the simplest electoral math, of course, since in 2008 the Democrats (and Senate independents) swept the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. But did liberals? The House was notoriously full of “blue dog” Democrats that leaned rightward enough that they helped the Republican Party water down and then almost destroy health care reform. The Senate was and to this day remains impotent as a result of the filibuster. The President who was elected was unfortunately quite beholden to his campaign contributors from the financial industry that donated to him quite handsomely.
This year’s election, admittedly doesn’t necessarily fix these problems, as the House is still under Republican control, which may prove worse than the mixed bag of Democratic rule, and Obama shed a few electoral votes. Still, we could always pull out the nuclear or constitutional option in the Senate and its notable that this year Obama won without the strings attached by Wall Street. If this year has been a limited victory, it seems about as constrained as 2008 was. Both years have honestly been a bit of a wash in terms of the means progressives acquired to implement their vision for the country, but 2012 has seen a small but important improvement over 2008 in terms of what that vision was: solidarity-driven.
written ranted here before about the central place that we have to provide solidarity in modern progressive politics, but I think nowhere is that more obvious than in comparing the 2008 and 2012 elections. 2008 was, from its primaries onward, marinated in denying the existence of intersectionality or the need for solidarity. For far too many voters, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for Democratic Presidential Nominee was equated with choosing between combating sexism or racism. A small but vocal number of Clinton supporters treated Obama’s eventual victory as a sign that racism was seen as more serious than sexism.
Then, in the aftermath of California’s narrow approval of Proposition 8, which added to the constitution the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman”, Dan Savage and other pundits argued that Black voters (and occasionally Latin@ voters as well) were fundamentally responsible. Savage even directly stated that he was “done pretending” that anti-Black racism was “a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color”. One of the most prominent responses from the Black community to this insulting argument contained the admission “I had some personal misgivings before casting my vote against. Perhaps gay rights activists needed to better explain […] how a No vote wouldn’t affect schools or teach children about gay marriage.” Apparently, allowing same-sex marriage was apparently just within the lines, but having schools acknowledge the existence of LGBT* people was beyond the pale. Just as Savage required Black voters to prove their worth to him, Roker lamented that marriage equality advocates hadn’t done a good enough job proving their worth to straight audiences (of various races).
From start to finish the elections in 2008 seemed to butt into this dynamic time and time again: of different disenfranchised groups competing for acknowledgement of their struggles and assistance in overcoming them. In some ways, it’s a miracle that 2008 wasn’t a disaster and progressives were able to be unified enough to challenge conservatives in many contexts.
2012 was completely different. Obama’s presidential reelection was driven by many issues, but among them was his administration’s attention to the needs of women. Repeatedly, he or his campaign would reiterate that they perceived abortion and contraception as the choice of each woman, not of politicians. Likewise, they highlighted his effort to end wage discrimination both with better laws and stronger enforcement of them. And of course, this graphic came up frequently as well:
(Originally from here.)
But this was more than a phenomenon playing out on the national stage – there were a number of local elections that provided us in 2012 with smaller but more varied “first” Senators or Representatives in comparison to the also historic first Black President in 2008. In almost every case, what created these landmark elections was that the elected officials belonged to multiple groups. In 2012, we saw intersectional candidates begin to win, whose own identities challenged the bitter rivalries that were so prevalent in 2008.
Until very recently there were virtually no women in the Senate or House, and while the 2012 elections helped improve that, there’s still a ways to go before the representation in federal government is actually representative. Among the women elected on Tuesday, however, were Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, Tulsi Gabbard, and Tammy Duckworth. But those four are all members of other chronically underrepresented groups in Congress as well. Baldwin is also the first openly LGBT* Senator in US history. Hirono is the first Buddhist Senator and Gabbard is the first Hindu to ever be elected into Congress. Tammy Duckworth is the first disabled woman and disabled person of color to have the honor and duty of representing constituents in the federal government. Joining her in the House of Representatives is also Mark Takano, the first LGBT* person of color to hold office in either legislative body of Congress.
I’ve already quote Krugman once, but let me do it again: this is “the country we are becoming”. We are and have been diverse, and not just in terms of a variety of identities, but also combinations of those identities. Finally, our political process has stuck its toe in the pool and tried representing that, just a little bit. I, for one, say we should go forward even more.